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Robotic ‘crawler’ to transform pipeline repair for offshore industry

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A new pipeline technology that is hoped to revolutionise performance and safety in industries around the world is to be showcased for the first time.

The development of the FSWBot – the Friction Stir Welding Robotic Crawler – for internal repair and refurbishment of pipelines, is expected to transform the way that industries such as oil and gas deal with pipeline issues.

Led by Cumbria, UK-based Forth Engineering, the FSWBot project will be presented at a British Manufacturing and Fabrication in the Offshore Energy Industry event in Aberdeen, Scotland later in November.

“We are getting a lot of interest and inquiries about the FSWBot from across the globe,” commented Peter Routledge, project manager at Forth Engineering. “Interest is really building, including from America and Canada.”

Industry funding

The project, which is sponsored by Innovate UK, seeks to integrate several state-of-the-art technologies, including friction stir welding, milling, patch deployment and ultrasonic NDT, onto a robotic system that can then be deployed to carry out repairs on pipelines without the need to shut down operations.

If successful, it is expected that the system could be further developed to carry out a range of repair and fabrication tasks.

The project received funding from Innovate UK in 2018 for a consortium, led by Forth Engineering, to develop a proof of concept system. Forth Engineering is now working with TWI, J4IC, Innvotek and LSBU on the project, which will have a positive impact on safety within the offshore industry.

Friction stir welding (FSW) is a solid state welding process that generates enough frictional heat to soften or plasticise the metal without melting it, allowing metal components to be forged together at the joint line. This system will demonstrate that a patch weld can be made in steel pipe under oil, and that a representative FSW system can be made small enough to operate in a 36-inch diameter export pipe.

Harsh environments

Mark Telford, managing director at Forth Engineering, added: “As a company we have developed a worldwide reputation for developing a range of robotic solutions for use in harsh environments. The tools we have developed over the years have been for, and used by, Sellafield, to successfully solve challenges in the nuclear industry. So our technology is tried and tested in harsh environments.

“There’s a fantastic opportunity for other businesses and organisations in the UK and across the world, whether that’s other nuclear operations, or oil and gas, renewables, and perhaps areas we haven’t even thought of, to make use of that technology, and to share their challenges so we can develop the FSWBot in ways to help them.

“There are industries all over the world which face their own similar issues and by sharing knowledge and collaborating we can help each other overcome some of those challenges. At the moment, an industry, a company, or an organisation, may see their only solution as sending a person into that extremely hazardous area. But that costs a huge amount of money, takes a lot of time, and is, by the very nature of the situation, putting people’s lives at risk.

“We are very keen to talk to any businesses or organisations who are faced with that type of challenge and discuss with them alternative solutions to the problems they face. We would far rather those businesses talked to us and shared what their own particular issues are. That way we can see if we can help them. Because at the end of the day, that business, or organisation, might be able to save time, money and potentially save lives, just by talking to us and sharing with us the issues they face.”

The project is due to be completed by the end of January 2021.